Category Archives: Latin America

El Salvador’s Combative New President Faces A Perilous Balancing Act

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

With a style and pedigree different from that of his modern predecessors, El Salvador’s new president came out swinging against the status quo almost as soon as his inauguration ended on June 1. Nayib Bukele’s supporters see his willingness to break with politics as usual as a sign that El Salvador may finally shake off the lingering vestiges of its 1980-1992 civil war. Until now, every Salvadoran president has been associated with one of the main protagonists in that brutal conflict, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) or the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Part of Bukele’s appeal is that he represents a break with the past, but change will come at a price in one of the world’s most violent countries. Unbalancing power dynamics too quickly in El Salvador could provoke a violent and destabilizing response.

A Hard Place

El Salvador is a tough place to govern. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and most of its people are poor. The country’s gross domestic product per capita is a paltry $3,900, and fully 29 percent of Salvadorans survive on half that amount. The economy is rooted in resource extraction, which is vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation. It is also heavily dependent on remittances from overseas, which account for 21.3 percent of GDP. Years of expensive infrastructure development and high levels of corruption have left El Salvador with a debt-to-GDP ratio that averages around $2,550 per person — a high number that will have serious consequences if it remains unchecked.

Though the economics of governance in El Salvador seem daunting, violence is perhaps a more urgent problem. El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world: 50.3 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2018. The country is home to some of the world’s most notorious gangs. When organizations like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 fight over territory, the resultant violence interrupts development and corrupts politics at every level. Inadequate funding and limited resources hamper the ability of El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC) to respond effectively to the threat. Though the PNC has respectable investigating arms, it lacks the confidence of the population. The justice system is in even worse shape. Judges and prosecutors who manage to avoid corruption are often intimidated. The prison system is underfunded and overcrowded, with some facilities operating at 320 percent capacity. Inmates in overcrowded prisons eventually establish their own order, turning what is meant to be a physical manifestation of state power into a secure communications and operations base for the gangs.

Breaking Rocks

Bukele will find it difficult to achieve prosperity for El Salvador while breaking with political tradition. Though he won the presidency with a resounding majority, FMLN and ARENA still dominate the Legislative Assembly, holding a combined 60 of the 84 seats. Bukele will need to act in a cooperative manner, yet so far he shows little inclination to do so. Little more than a week into his presidency, he accused the FMLN of funding gangs to destabilize his government. He followed that explosive statement with another, threatening to “attack the criminality” of the FMLN’s senior officials. Though observers of Salvadoran politics say this is not a new phenomenon, acknowledging it in such a public way is not something a Salvadoran president has done before.

The Legislative Assembly is not the only institution uncomfortable with Bukele’s new approach. Leading families and their associates, so accustomed to wielding influence in El Salvador, have found themselves on the receiving end of termination notices delivered via Twitter. The social media-savvy Bukele used Twitter to announce the firing of 30 relatives and associates of former President Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the FMLN. They are already pushing back, calling the firings an abuse of power and preparing lawsuits that could cause leadership crises in the agencies involved.

More dramatically perhaps, Bukele’s first order of business as president was to order the army — again via Twitter — to remove the name of Col. Domingo Monterrosa from its 3rd Infantry Brigade barracks in San Miguel. Monterrosa was the commander of the forces responsible for the infamous El Mozote massacre during El Salvador’s civil war. That incident claimed the lives of nearly 1,000 villagers accused by the army of sympathizing with FMLN guerillas. The massacre played a central role in the negotiations that ended El Salvador’s civil war because the army insisted on amnesty as a condition for peace. Since then, the army has honored Monterrosa as a hero. Though the army acquiesced to Bukele’s demand, it is unclear what the president’s relationship with the military will be going forward.

Striking the Balance

Without a legislative majority or support from the oligarchy or the army, Bukele will need all the friends he can get if he is to maintain stability in El Salvador. His critics in ARENA and particularly in the FMLN, a party he once belonged to, know how to attack him. They’ve highlighted some of his expensive failures as mayor of San Salvador and pointed out that despite his attacks on cronyism and corruption, Bukele appointed dozens of relatives and associates to take the place of those he’s fired. Though he commands the support of a growing majority of Salvadoran voters, he could quickly lose their adoration if FMLN pays the gangs to destabilize the country as he claims.

Bukele will need all the friends he can get if he is to maintain stability in El Salvador.

Bukele’s combative approach to entrenched interests in El Salvador may win him the support of the voters but it leaves him with few allies in his quest to change his country’s reputation for violence and backwardness. Though he’s burning bridges at home, the right foreign backers may allow him to attract enough investment and maintain enough security to address his serious fiscal and political concerns, but this is far from assured. Recognizing this, he is rearranging some of El Salvador’s traditional alignments in ways that will appeal to U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration. For example, Bukele declined to invite the leaders of Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras and Venezuela to his inauguration, telling President Nicolas Maduro to “say goodbye” to Venezuela’s alliance with El Salvador. Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s focus on Central American migrants makes the United States a challenging partner.

However, the United States is not the only superpower with interests in the region. China also wields significant economic influence over El Salvador’s foreign policy. After some early suggestions he may reestablish relations with Taiwan, Bukele reaffirmed his country’s “complete” and “established” relations with China on June 27 and said his government would look “wherever we have to look” to develop El Salvador. While it is unclear what caused him to seemingly change his stance, the best Bukele can hope for in these circumstances is to provoke a developmental bidding war between China and the United States — a balance few leaders have been able to manage.

Ultimately, Bukele has a choice to make. The climate in San Salvador is not conducive to establishing populist dominance over his rivals and unless he finds a way to cooperate with his country’s other power brokers, El Salvador is on course for gridlock and pain. If Bukele fails, he may find it difficult to contain a violent reaction against him and his supporters, a consequence that could cause a deterioration in security in the wider region. The extent to which he can manage the balancing act between the will of the people, the vested interests of his still powerful rivals and the desires of global stakeholders to move El Salvador forward may ultimately be the central feature of his presidency.


Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He is a regular contributor to Stratfor’s Worldview.

Liberty Happens: Venezuela on the Brink

On the morning of April 30th, Juan Guaidó announced a non-violent uprising against the Maduro government. He called the uprising “Operation Liberty” and for the first time, he openly invited the country’s military forces to join him. Broadcast on social media from an Air Force base in Caracas, the poorly produced video announcement was a confusing mixture of a populist call to action and an appeal to defend the Constitution from the usurpation of the Maduro regime. With Maduro under increasing pressure economically and politically, the time seems right for such a move yet it has seemed this way for years. Guaidó’s failure to spark any significant change under these conditions suggests that even in Venezuela there is more to achieving liberty than mobilizing enthusiasm for the cause; there must also be a plan.

Resistance Potential

There is a concept in the doctrine of revolution that seeks to measure the capacity of a society to change its government. Called “resistance potential,” one measures this capacity by an ambiguous dynamic of popular discontent, insurgent organization, inspirational leadership, geographic viability, and other factors. Without it, there is no possibility of a revolution. The good news for Guaidó, and the reason he keeps up the pressure on Maduro, is that resistance potential in Venezuela is extremely high.

An accelerating economic catastrophe exacerbates Venezuela’s political crisis. Home to the world’s largest proven oil reserve, Venezuela was once among the wealthiest nations on earth. But since Hugo Chavez first set the country on its current course in 1999, the economy has become increasingly reliant on crude oil, with exports reaching 98% of the nation’s external trade by value. This overreliance on a single commodity is unhealthy under normal circumstances but it is catastrophic with crude production at a 70-year low – nearly a third of the daily output achieved 20 years ago and half what it was in 2014. The slide has taken the currency with it, hitting ordinary Venezuelans hard and causing shortages in basic retail goods across the board. Hunger, unemployment, and desperation have become a feature of life for Venezuelans not wealthy enough or quick enough to leave before their savings were eliminated by hyperinflation exceeding 1.3 million percent.

The resultant humanitarian disaster has pushed 3.4 million desperate Venezuelans out of the country and is the fuel that feeds its resistance potential. Increasingly reliant on oppression and corruption to maintain power, Maduro is the focus of popular discontent that erupted in a spectacular attempt on his life by drone-delivered bombs in August 2018. Though he survived the attempt, it is likely this led Guaidó, by then the President of the tightly controlled National Assembly, to invoke an obscure clause in the Constitution allowing him to declare himself President in January. Since then Guaidó has done little beyond calling for popular demonstrations, though that changed in February when he attempted to spark an uprising by forcing humanitarian aid across the border from Colombia. Maduro easily countered the ill-conceived move, causing a dramatic confrontation and burning of the aid on the Santander Bridge. Somehow Guaidó’s credibility survived mostly intact even though many passionate Venezuelan volunteers did not.

Humanitarian Cucuta Colombia Venezuela
Humanitarian aid burns on the Santander Bridge linking Cucuta, Colombia with Venezuela on 23 February 2019. Guaidó’s ill-conceived push to force the border was easily countered by Maduro.

A Vision Without a Plan

Juan Guaidó believes the Maduro regime is ready for a fall, but his failures prove it takes more than resistance potential to change a government. Guaidó has a vision of Venezuela that is prosperous under his leadership and free of Maduro, but Guaidó is a tactical thinker, not a strategist. His political career thus far, and the public struggles he hoped would trigger Maduro’s downfall, were poorly planned and opportunistic. Not only does Guaidó lack a plan for success, he lacks the institutional capacity necessary to implement a plan in the first place. To understand this, one must know how power works in modern Venezuela.

The Venezuelan military, particularly the Army, is the guarantor of the Maduro regime’s viability. The basis for this arrangement is a patronage system that privileges the business interests of senior military officers and their families. Of all the failing institutions of the Venezuelan government, the military and police get paid first and they repay that patronage with loyalty. President Trump’s 18 February appeal directly to the Bolivarian Military to ignore their orders indicates a basic understanding of this in Washington, yet Guaidó made no similar moves to attract the Venezuelan officer corps to his cause until this morning. Doing so will require more than platitudes about liberty and the will of the people. It will require amnesty for senior officers, a strategy for paying salaries and funding the military through the transition, and at least a partial guarantee the patronage system will not be immediately dismantled. At this time, Guaidó doesn’t even have a designated Minister of Defense or a General Officer prepared to offer advice and take command of the military if required.

This apparent oversight cannot be attributed only to a flawed or non-existent strategy. With few exceptions, Guaidó’s team consists of his peers in the national assembly, many of whom are younger than him and lack bureaucratic experience. They struggle with funding and are invariably double- or triple-hatted. In the few instances where they manage well-defined ministerial portfolios, they do so under ambiguous authority, without the support of a single institution staffed, funded, and equipped to carry out the functions of government, and often in direct contravention of a Maduro official that does have proper agency backing. Needless to say these are very challenging conditions under which to manage a national crisis, especially one under tremendous pressure from external stakeholders.

Making Liberty

Despite the apparent shortcomings of Guaidó’s strategy and planning, he is a bold leader of character that puts himself at risk to achieve a positive vision for Venezuela. His apparent misreading of the country’s resistance potential and hesitation to recruit the military is perhaps better understood by recognizing that he is not a revolutionary. Guaidó does not want to fundamentally change Venezuela. He does not seek to abolish the legislature, defeat the National Bolivarian Armed Forces, or put his name on the Presidential palace. Instead, he wants to take over the existing system, and he wants to do so within the legal parameters available to him under the country’s current constitution. Until now he has been reliant upon popular demonstrations to exert pressure on Maduro to walk away, but for Operation Liberty to succeed, Guaidó will need a plan that draws the military away from Maduro. Liberty doesn’t just happen, it is made.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He was directly involved with Guaidó’s failed attempt to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela in February 2019. You can see his first hand observations of that dramatic event on this Twitter thread from that day.

End of the Left: Latin America’s Right-Wing Swing

In the last three years, Presidential politics brought a series of changes to Latin America that seem to signal a shift away from the ideology of the Left. Though the shift is not (yet) a region-wide trend – Maduro, Ortega, Morales, and others still hold leftist power – it is significant enough in the large southern economies to raise eyebrows in Caracas, La Paz, and other left-leaning capitals. Recent Presidential elections in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina are noteworthy, not just for their potentially large economic impacts on Latin America, but because the voters there cast off their left-leaning leadership despite their own dark memories of right-wing governments.

Though the shift may be a response to socialist governance that struggles with corruption and effectiveness, it follows a global rightward trend energized by a populist desire for something different. The most recent election results were disappointing for incumbents in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Peru. Most of those went to right-of-center candidates and some represented a complete ideological about face. Whether driven by ideology or simply voter frustration with those in charge, a change is in the air in Latin America and it does not look good for the Left.

Kirchner Leads the Way

The electoral downfall of Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is an example of voter frustration with an incumbent. The wife of former President Nestor Kirchner, Cristina inherited his political identity as Argentina’s Peronist candidate, a reference to the popular President Juan Peron and the political movement he inspired. Considered the dominant political ideology in the country’s modern history, Peronist candidates have won nine of Argentina’s last 12 elections. Cristina’s “accession” to the Presidency as supported by her husband, entrenched the “Kirchner Clan” in Argentine politics in a manner reminiscent of some of the worst aspects of Peronism (the heavy-handed Peron was also succeeded by his wife). Cristina’s penchant for glamour and graft further entrenched the Kirchners in the economy, society, and courtrooms of the country.

Once she was out of power, the Argentine legal system began to investigate her corruption and that of her husband; actions which some view as the government simply catching up with what the people already knew. In October 2018, a judge began an investigation of Mrs. Kirchner and her children, Florencia and Máximo, for money laundering. Though this news drew significant media attention, it is not the only case being brought against Mrs. Kirchner. The state is also investigating her for irregularities in awarding public contracts to Grupo Austral in the province of Santa Cruz, the cradle of “Kirchnerism.”[1] She is also being investigated for defrauding the government through the dollar futures market, for trying to cover up the Iranian bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, and for several other charges related to the abuse of power.

Macri Kirchner
The ideological, political, and social division between the “Macristas” and “Kirchnerists”.
Photo credit: https://www.elintransigente.com/politica/2017/6/14/cristina-kirchner-difundio-duro-documento-contra-macri-441000.html

Nevertheless, Mrs. Kirchner’s ability to survive elections in order to stay in power cannot be denied. Now a Senator, Kirchner claims with some success she is a victim of persecution by her successor, Mauricio Macri. Despite the polarization between “Macristas” and “Kirchnerists”, she remains popular in large part due to welfare programs she implemented while President. Under her administration, however, subsidies designed to support social groups did nothing to contribute to the country’s economy and led to a large internal debt Macri has been unable to completely reverse. He now suffers from a relatively low approval rating because of external debt generated in part, by International Monetary Fund loans intended to manage the deficit caused by the Kirchners. Sensing opportunity, Mrs. Kirchner is widely expected to run for President again in 2019.

Return to the Right-Wing

One can clearly see a return to the Right in Chile with the end of Michelle Bachelet’s Socialist Party administration and the re-entry of rightist ideologue Sebastián Piñera in 2017. The case of Mrs. Bachelet is similar to that of Mrs. Fernández in that both were the first female leaders of their countries and both came from leftist political parties. The similarities end there, however. Mrs. Bachelet is not part of a family dynasty or the embodiment of a cultural-political movement like Peronism. In the comparatively healthy political environment in Chile, she has traded the Presidency with her right-wing rival for the last 16 years.

At the beginning of her first administration – 2006-2010 – Bachelet had a very high approval rating. Chilean voters had elected her with 53.9% of the vote; giving her a healthy seven-point margin and control of 12 of the country’s 13 regions. Her 2014 election was even more convincing when she won an astonishing 62% of the votes; setting up her second administration with a solid mandate for a more progressive program. Among her most notable achievements were the abortion law; the enactment of a union civil law; and the enfranchisement of Chileans abroad. Chilean Presidential politics is a balancing act between Left and Right however and the center-left political group she represented was no longer welcome in Chile. Whispers of corruption began to erode her still great popularity.

Bachelet Pinera
Mrs. Bachelet and Mr. Piñera, representing the political change in Chile. Photo credit: https://radio.uchile.cl/2018/03/10/bilaterales-marcan-ultimo-dia-de-michelle-bachelet-y-pinera-antes-del-cambio-de-mando/

In 2015, a company partly-owned by Bachelet’s daughter-in-law was investigated for use of privileged information and influence peddling in connection with a land sale. The company, “Caval Limited”, became known as Bachelet’s “secret business” and caused her approval rating to plummet to 35% in a single month in March 2015. By the time of the 2017 election, the desire for change was no surprise. Piñera won a clear victory, with 54.5% of the votes, a nine-point margin over the left-leaning Alejandro Guillier (a social democrat).

Ultra Shift

Brazil provides another example of the shift from Left to Right. In an ideological continuation of rule by the left-leaning Partido de los Trabajadores (PT), Dilma Vana Rousseff won the presidential election in 2010. Though she commanded only a narrow 51.64% of the vote, the win was seen as significant for PT which ruled in Brazil for the preceding 13 years. Rousseff, the first female President of Brazil, hoped to emulate her former boss, President Lula da Silva whom she served as Chief of Staff and Minister of Energy. At the time Lula left office, he was the most popular politician in Brazilian history, enjoying approval ratings of 80%. Like Kirchner however, Rousseff’s corruption prevented her from capitalizing on the widespread popularity of her predecessor. In 2016 she was impeached by the Brazilian Senate for violating fiscal rules and removed from office.

Dilma’s impeachment and Lula da Silva’s incarceration on influence peddling charges left PT without a strong candidate in the 2018 election. Reflecting the electorate’s frustration with 13 years of PT corruption, Mr. Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army officer and an “ultra-right” candidate, won the presidential election by a whopping 11 points. Bolsonaro seems like a hard sell in free-wheeling Brazil. A constant stream of offensive comments has been the hallmark of his 30-year political career. Among other things, he has publicly said: he wouldn’t hire men and women with the same salary; he would be unable to love a homosexual son; and that Afro-descendants don’t do anything and shouldn’t procreate. Yet as shocking as he can be, he is the candidate that best embodies the Brazilian people’s disillusion with the Left.

Bolsonaro
Mr. Jair Bolsonaro. Now President of Brazil Photo credit: https://www.infobae.com/america/america-latina/2018/11/28/estados-unidos-califico-de-oportunidad-historica-la-eleccion-de-jair-bolsonaro-como-presidente-de-brasil/

Indigenous Axis

Evo Morales Ayma has been the President of Bolivia for a record 13 years. He became the country’s first indigenous leader when he was elected in 2005 with 53.7% of the vote. His reelection in 2009 with 64% of the vote signaled that Bolivia had moved firmly away from the non-indigenous, largely right-wing politics of its past. When he won again in 2014 with 61.3% of the vote he seemed unstoppable. His affinity for Venezuela’s socialist icon, Hugo Chavez, was a cause for concern throughout the hemisphere and particularly in Washington which believed they presented an alternative form of left-wing governance that threatened the established order on the continent.

Morales’s political machine appears to be losing momentum, however. Perhaps sensing danger in the state of post-Chavez Venezuela, the Bolivian electorate is expressing a desire for change. The shift in opinion was evident in the results of a referendum on presidential term limits that would abolish term limits and allow Morales to run again in 2019. Not only was this his first electoral defeat in a decade, but it was a clear rejection of his continued leadership of the country.

Maduro Morales Correa
Mr. Evo Morales with Mr. Maduro (R) and Mr. Correa (L) in 2015. Photo credit: http://www.la-razon.com/nacional/Frases-presidentes-Correa-Maduro-Morales_0_2361363938.html

End of the Left?

Latin America has a long and difficult history of abuse at the hands of right-wing governments, a fact that makes the rightward trend of electoral politics there a somewhat surprising development. Corruption has played a big part as leaders from both Left and Right have been found guilty of using their positions to benefit themselves and their cronies but it is the Left, which held the majority of Presidencies in the region for the last 15 years, that is receiving the brunt of voter frustration.

The failure of the socialist dream in Venezuela is also having far-reaching consequences with well over a million Venezuelans fleeing privation and despair in what used to be the region’s wealthiest nation. The significance of the exodus cannot be lost on voters struggling to reconcile their fears of a right-wing resurgence with their frustration over systemic left-wing corruption. Though it may be too soon to declare the end of the Left, there is a clear desire for change that will leave its mark on elections in 2019.


[1] Kirchnerism is poorly defined and probably cannot be considered a political movement in its own right. It can probably best be described as an extension of the heavy-handed left-wing political philosophy of Juan Peron.

Ligia Lee GuandiqueLigia Lee Guandique is a political analyst living in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a Master’s degree in Political Science from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Ligia has worked with human rights-based NGOs and is a regular contributor to The Affiliate Network.